Another church visit


Before Sunday, I hadn't visited any new churches in quite a while, mainly because I'd lost most of my enthusiasm for the project. I had visited quite a few self-identified progressive churches in my city in 2006 and 2007, but none of them really worked for me. I was running out of new places to visit in my immediate area, and I wasn't sure what I was looking for anyway.

Sunday, I crossed a certain well known and rather large orange bridge to an adjacent county. As the crow flies, it wasn't that far away; for that matter, as the car drives, it wasn't that far away either. A thirty minute drive, tops. But I did somehow feel like I had crossed over into another world, although I'm not sure that this feeling made any sense. I live in a large metropolitan area and people do travel long distances some times to attend particular churches. The bridge was probably more a psychological barrier than anything else.

I had visited one other church in this county; that one was self-consciously progressive and had a progressive pastor, who tended to be somewhat less dressed up than the couple of men in dark gray suits and ties who stood at the door and greeted people as they walked in. I know it is not unheard of for men to wear suits in church, but the conservatism of those suits and the fact that the male attenders in general weren't necessarily wearing that sort of attire always made me feel a little weird or even intimidated. I wasn't sure what their official capacity was, if anything. In reality, that church never grabbed me for other reasons; the times I stayed after for coffee hour I found myself completely ignored by the rest of the congregation, even though I was obviously a visitor. Must have been the jeans. After a couple of tries, I never went back.

Well, the church I visited last Sunday wasn't like that. The attenders were dressed generally rather nicely, but none of the men were wearing suits, thank God. Actually, men in general seemed to be in somewhat short supply here. A clear majority of the maybe 50 people in attendance were female, and most of those were at least as old as I am (and I'm not that young.) There were some men, and a smattering of younger people, but the demographic did skew a certain way.

I felt the usual nervousness that I feel when visiting churches, as if I were some sort of interloper in a world that I was not a part of. The woman sitting next to me, though, was extremely nice and she told me at the end of the service that she hoped that I would come again. Part of the interloper feeling was, ironically, made more prevalent by the extreme informality of the proceedings, where the pastor (who was charming, outgoing, and cheerful) engaged members of the congregation frequently, addressing them by name, joking with them--and, of course, I was not member of the club of known people, so I was in that sense a definite outsider. This was not a somberly formal or sacramental worship service. The chairs were placed in a circle, and I could not help but notice that the pastor, although wearing a formal robe, was also barefoot. There was no communion this particular Sunday (I don't know how often they celebrate it; it could be once a month, but if so, apparently not the first Sunday of the month.) There was also no passing of the peace, which surprised me--I think this was the first Protestant church service I had attended in the last two years that did not engage in that practice. The overwhelmingly dominant presence was that of the pastor. I'm not saying that was a bad thing--she just had a dynamic personality and was involved in almost every aspect of the service.

As I sat in church, I contemplated the informality of the worship, and whether such informality was really my cup of tea. I think my Quaker background ruined me for life; I think I like something contemplative, sublime, uplifting, maybe even a little solemn, when I attend a form of worship. I realized that this particular church probably wasn't for me, but I also recognized that I had nothing against what they were doing either. It was fine, it was friendly. If I had gone back repeatedly, the pastor would probably have gotten to know me and started engaging me in the service like she engaged the others. If church for me were mainly about community, this church might actually have had considerable appeal.

The service included two readings, one from the Bible and one from an American poet. I liked the eclecticism in that. The pastor did talk about God and even made references to Jesus that suggested that she thought he was divine, so I was sure that the pastor was more theologically orthodox than I was; but the service was not that heavy on theology. It was more about community, really, and it seemed liberal enough that it could almost have passed for a Unitarian Universalist service.

Community is very much a part of what many churches offer, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. If I had a clearer idea of what I was looking for in a church, if indeed I was looking for anything at all, then maybe I could have done a better job of evaluating churches when I attended them. I spent some time during the service last Sunday thinking about this problem of not really knowing what my criteria were. To be honest, though, I didn't see myself as church shopping, but rather church window shopping. I wasn't looking for a church home because I really didn't think that it was likely I would find such a thing. Instead, going to church (when I did go, which has become less frequent) was more about sampling experiences, but not with any goal in mind.

It was not an unpleasant time, the pastor was likable, and I had at least one friendly encounter with a member, but I could see no compelling reason to make a half-hour drive over a bridge to visit this church again.


D said...

I live near that well-known orange bridge as well. :)

And I feel your pain on the inability to gel with a church.

Kay said...

Sounds like a service that might be right up my alley. But then I haven't been to church for 10 years, so I really have no idea what I'd like.

Philip said...


Thanks for the write-up. I'd like to hear more about your Quaker experiences, and your current feelings about them. Perhaps you could provide a link.

Also, I have linked to this blog from my "Fave 5" section.

Mystical Seeker said...


I see from your blogger profile that you are over in the East Bay. I haven't really checked out what is available there, mainly because the big gray bridge is an even bigger barrier for me than the big orange one is :) (I'm speaking of course about the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The big orange bridge never seems to have the backups on Sundays that the big gray one does. :))

Mystical Seeker said...


You might like that church. They try to be unconventional and I think they mostly succeed. I think if you are looking for a church that offers community rather than much theology, that would a place for you. But I understand what you mean by not knowing what you'd really like. I've been going to church and I don't know what I like!

Mystical Seeker said...


Thanks for the link.

Jan said...

Like Philip, I'd like to hear more about your Quaker experiences and background. I love my Episcopal Church but don't know if I'll stay forever. It's very open and accepting, plus the community draws you in. I'm in a great tension of wondering what I believe.

Joliene said...

I know you said CCSM was a bit of a trek for you, but I very much think you would enjoy my church. It's a good blend of somewhat traditional worship (hymns, choir, group prayer, etc), with a liberal theology, a large enough membership (200? people on Sundays) that newcomers aren't completely obvious (unless you raise your hand when the minister asks if you're visiting), a mix of "outfits"... suits to jeans and some kids not even wearing shoes... and a scripture reading and poetry reading (mary oliver? david whyte? american indian poem?)before each sermon. There are many elderly people at my church, many middle-aged people, and a lot of children (they run off to Sunday school early, though, so they are not screaming in the pews). My age category (20s-30s) is the smallest, I believe.

I'll be taking the train from SF once I move there in August. My church is fucking worth it :)

If you do choose to come, I recommend you come on a Sunday when Penny Nixon is preaching (which is most, since she's the senior minister). You can download sermons.

In (somewhat) related news, my recent completion of the belief-o-matic told me that I am most in line with liberal quaker... if that perhaps would assure you that my taste is similar to yours.

Mystical Seeker said...

Jan and Philip,

When I began attending a small Quaker meeting nearly twenty years ago, I was a coworker with the clerk of that meeting. The smallness of the meeting and that personal connection was a big help for me and made it easy for me to become more integrated into that meeting. I was really attracted to Quaker values, I liked the democratic and spontaneously improvisational nature of the Quaker meeting, and I was drawn to the mystical nature of the Quaker worship experience.

So why did I drift away? That's difficult to say, but I think that as I moved around from place to place(which I did a lot of at one point in my life) I was struck with just how hard it was to find a new meeting that I could call home in my new locality. Maybe it's that, as a non-creedal church, Quakers want to have some way of weeding out the casual participants, so maybe that makes them more standoffish towards new attenders; or maybe it's their centuries of history as a "peculiar" people with their own traditions and practices; but I just never felt that welcomed when I visited new meetings. I wasn't able to settle on a new home meeting the last time I made a major move to a new area, and eventually I just stopped going to meeting, although I made several attempts from time to time to attend a meeting on Sundays. It just wasn't working for me anymore.

When I was actively involved in Quakerism, it was a very committed undertaking for me. I read all the pamphlets I could find from Pendle Hill (a Quaker publishing house), I subscribed to Friends Journal, I arrived early on Sundays to meeting and set up the chairs and the coffee maker, and I once started an online discussion forum on Quakerism.

I guess, ultimately, I can't give another reason than the one I gave above--at some point, it just wasn't working for me anymore. I still share a lot of Quaker values to this day. And it still influences my worship practices as well; this includes the fact that I still don't like to take communion because I just don't see the point in it, and I think this is a clear leftover from my Quaker days. But overall, I just don't feel any real attraction to the Quaker faith. I have nothing against it and I think that if others are interested in exploring it, they definitely should; their experiences might not match my own.

Mystical Seeker said...


If I can managed to get myself up early enough some Sunday morning to make it down to San Mateo by 10 AM, I might just give it a try. :) Thanks for offering that recommendation.

Cynthia said...

A colleague of mine gave me a copy of the most recent issue of Sharing the Journey because he thought I might be interested in a certain book review. Imagine my surprise when I looked in the table of contents to see an article written by you!

I think you should take your writing talents and your church window shopping tales and wheel them over to The Christian Century. More people, especially more pastors, need to know about folks who are searching like you.

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Cynthia,

Well, I was solicited by the editor of Sharing the Journey to write that article. I'm not sure if Christian Century would be interested in what I have to write or not, but I appreciate that you think they would find value in it.

D said...

Mystical Seeker,

The only church you might dig is Northbrae Community Church. It's stained glass windows feature everyone from jesus to buddha to ghandi to mohammed. It's pretty cool.

Otherwise, we've had a hard time finding places we like.

Mystical Seeker said...

D, I have been a little curious about that church. Thanks for the recommendation. If I ever make it over the bridge on a Sunday, I might just have to check it out. Another one in the East Bay I have been curious about is Grace North Church, which I understand has a very traditional service (which I'm not sure how I'd feel about) but which from what I can tell seems to be pretty pluralistic and non-dogmatic on matters of theology.

Philip said...

Thanks for your description of your Quaker background. I have also found that each individual church is different and has its own personality, and even that may change!